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Shedding Religious Exclusivism in the College Classroom

By Mark Waters


Dakota grew up in a Baptist church in Lawn, Texas. Her first trip to India with McMurry University precipitated a crisis of faith. Though friendly, accepting, and open to others, Dakota’s religious upbringing taught her that non-Christians “go to hell.” She never questioned this teaching until she went to India. There she met, served alongside and was served by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and Christians. The dissonance between the faith of her childhood and the new people she met kept her awake at night talking to peers, other leaders on the trip, and me.

No one told her what to think. We listened, guided, discussed alternative possibilities, and let her wrestle with her questions. Simultaneously she fell in love with her new friends in India. After returning home Dakota said, “I went to India expecting to teach and convert. I never expected to learn so much, to have my own heart converted.” Dakota returned to India the next summer to continue serving, learning, and growing. She remains genuinely faithful to the religion of her childhood, minus the “hell” part, yet she has a newfound respect for and openness toward people of other faiths. She will graduate in May prepared to teach Spanish in public schools.

Finding a Friend from a Different Tradition

Students like Dakota inspire me to foster interfaith relationships in this “buckle of the Bible belt.” So, in collaboration with my colleague Robert Wallace, I decided to teach a Sociology of Religion course this fall that would conclude with a trip to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City. In addition to reading and writing assignments, each student was asked to befriend someone of another faith tradition. They were to share a meal together, hear each other’s personal faith stories, do a service project together, share and discuss a favorite scripture reading, and keep a journal noting feelings, challenges, new things learned, and stereotypes broken.

The assignment may sound contrived. Why not let interfaith relationships develop “naturally,” as they did for Dakota during her trips to India?

In Abilene, Texas, however, one has to be quite intentional about interfaith relationships. They rarely develop “naturally.” So I contacted students in advance of the course, giving them a head start in developing an interfaith conversation partner; and I sent a proposal to the Parliament for the students to present a panel on their experience in Salt Lake City. The proposal was accepted.

Implementing “Contact Theory”

Gordon Allport – Photo: study.com

Gordon Allport – Photo: study.com

“Contact theory” suggests positive outcomes from a person’s contact with the religious “other.” First proposed by Gordon Allport in 1954, positive results have been replicated since then by numerous studies. Contact theory asserts that formal and informal contact among people who are culturally, religiously, racially, ethnically, or otherwise different from one another tends to reduce stereotyping and prejudice and mitigate in-group/out-group mentalities.

As common sense implies, we are much less likely to be prejudiced against people we know than people we do not know. We tend to fill-in unknowns with our own narratives, prejudices, and stereotypes of what the “other” is like. With contact, the unknowns are replaced with genuine knowledge and experience of others rather than the narratives we often spin in our own minds.

Growing with New Friends

The Sociology of Religion class jumped to work rigorously through the weeks prior to the Parliament and arrived in Salt Lake City full of enthusiasm. They navigated the hundreds of Parliament programs as well as anyone could. Being with 9,800 interfaith activists for four days further shaped their experience of interfaith relationships leading up to their own workshop on the last day of the event.

Their nervous energy was channeled into enthusiasm and confidence that day. Of the seven students, six were United Methodist Christians. One was agnostic. We did not intentionally “stack” the panel with United Methodists. It simply turned out that they were the students who were interested in the course, had room for the elective in their schedules, and the time and money for a travel course in the middle of a busy semester. Their interfaith partners – now friends – included one Baha’i, three Buddhists, one Hindu, and two Muslims.

Friendship was a hallmark of each of their stories. The assignment became much more than an academic exercise. Eating together, hearing one another’s stories, and serving together created bonds of closeness that, in many cases, will last.

Caitie and Manel first met when Caitie worked as a student intern with the Abilene Interfaith Council. It seemed appealing to both of them to continue their friendship through the class assignment. Both wanted the opportunity to learn more about each other’s faith. Theirs has become a lasting friendship of mutual learning and growth. Caitie will graduate this year to pursue a career in Student Affairs. Her interfaith experience and openness will serve her well among increasingly diverse populations on college campuses.

Ashley found that interfaith friendship helped her to grow in ways very similar to Dakota. With her Hindu friend, Reena, and through her Parliament experience, she discovered that God’s family is much larger than her hometown religion is ready to admit. While she loves her family and the people of her hometown, the changing perspectives wrought through her interfaith experiences mean that, in some ways, she is now the religious “other” at home. She handles this shift with understanding and grace, noting that she accepts her family where they are.

Mitch and Nathan were childhood friends who grew apart. Mitch retained evangelical elements from his youth, and Nathan drifted away from religion altogether before embracing Theravada Buddhism. Mitch’s college experience already had led him to question the exclusive claims of his roots; so he chose to use the course assignment as a chance to reconnect with his childhood friend. Their conversations made them self-reflective, each growing in faith and practice as well as openness to others.  

Faithfulness and Change

Students learned that they can grow from exposure to other faiths without compromising their own. Dennis found his Christian devotion strengthened by meditation practice learned from his Shambhala Buddhist partner, Craig. Jamie found she doesn’t need to be threatened by religious differences. Learning practices and beliefs of others “doesn’t lessen who I am,” she said. She went on to say it is okay if she changes through exposure to other traditions. “The point of religion,” she said, “is to change.”

McMurry students presenting their workshop at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City

McMurry students presenting their workshop at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City

Change, in good and difficult ways, is apparent in Thomas’ life. He grew up Roman Catholic, but a number of painful experiences in adolescence led him to identify as agnostic. His conversation partner, James, had a similar journey. Moving from conservative Protestant roots through agnosticism, James found a home in Buddhist practice. James’ journey offered hope to Thomas, who isn’t ready to give up on religion altogether. Thomas is skeptical since the religion he experienced was so harsh that, in an emotional vortex between belief and atheism, he contemplated suicide. His willingness to talk about suicide, combined with his eager engagement of this class and the Parliament experience, suggests that Thomas now is in a place where change is life-giving.  

The Secret Sauce of Interfaith Friendship – Shared Service

Jack, a student serving as a youth pastor at a local United Methodist Church, and his partner Nahla, a Muslim student from Tunisia, developed a unique service project. They created a pamphlet supporting homeless people. It lists ways to find help – places to eat, shower, find shelter, get job training, and the like – all detailed in the handout. Jack used the project to introduce his youth group to Islam in the context Nahla’s desire to help homeless people. The youth, according to Jack, are from sometimes Islamophobic environments. They were touched by the mutual effort of Nahla and Jack to serve homeless people. A seed was planted that, with watering and cultivation, may deepen interfaith understanding in Jack’s youth group.

Many seeds, in fact, were planted through our course. The interfaith-friend assignment and participating in the Parliament increased understanding and inspired activism. I know each of these students reasonably well and am confident they will cultivate the seeds that are already growing. They will continue to be interfaith leaders and ambassadors, on campus and in their various endeavors following college. These emerging leaders and others like them give me hope for a more peaceful world.